"Conversing with God"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts October 17, 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Acts 2:41-42
41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
The Joys of Corporate Prayer?
As I think back of experiences I have had praying with other Christians, I'm flooded with a wide variety of memories. Some are deeply moving; others are, well, rather humorous.
When I was leading the college group at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, one of my student leaders was a young man named Phil. Bright, conscientious, and deeply committed to Christ, Phil actually went on to become an ordained Presbyterian pastor. But he got his start as a worship leader in the College Department at Hollwood Pres. It wasn't an altogether smooth start, however, which is usually the case when we're trying new things.
On one occasion Phil was the designated prayer leader for the group. As he began his prayer, Phil was obviously unsure of how he would address God that morning. "Father" was his usual option. But for some reason Phil was leaning toward "Master" that day. But, in his confusion, instead of praying "Dear Father" or "Dear Master," what came out of Phil's mouth, plain as day, was "Dear Fat Master." Now that was something I hadn't heard before! The group tried for a couple of seconds to keep from laughing, but to no avail. Soon we were all howling, while poor Phil's face turned scarlet.
Now I had a few of my own embarrassing experiences in prayer while I was on the staff of the Hollywood church. One Sunday morning I was a worship assistant, which meant I was elegantly robed and seated on one of the "thrones" that sat upon the sanctuary chancel. I had the prayer of invocation and the announcements that day. One of the other pastors had the pastoral prayer, four minutes of eloquent intercession that transitioned neatly into the Lord's Prayer. As he began this prayer, I found myself feeling a little woozy. The next thing I knew, the whole congregation was praying the Lord's Prayer, except for me, of course, because I was sleeping. Yeow! Only a few friends figured out what had happened to me. I'm sure many in the congregation were convinced that I was so deep in prayer I didn't bother to say the words of the Lord's Prayer. But deep in sleep was more like it!
Suffice it to say I've had some of my greatest times as a Christian when praying with other believers. And, if truth be told, some of my more entertaining times as well.
Corporate Prayer at the Center
Prayer. It may be the most common activity among Christians. Of course the forms different widely, from chanted prayers of Catholic monks, to shouted prayers from Hispanic Pentecostals, to highly liturgical Anglican prayers, to spontaneous Evangelical prayers, to silent Quaker prayers, etc. etc. But, no matter what the form, wherever Christians gather, you'll find them in prayer together.
This happened right from the get-go. In Acts 2 we read that the earliest believers "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (v. 42). The plural noun "prayers" with the definite article "the" suggests that the first Christians continued to participate in the established rotation of Jewish common prayers. And we know from elsewhere in Acts that they gathered for more spontaneous corporate prayer as well. To be sure, the individual believers would have prayed on their own, following the instruction and example of Jesus. But Acts 2 emphasizes their coming together for the purpose of prayer. Corporate prayer stands right at the center of the church.
I must say that this is one of the things I love about this church. Our founding pastor, Ben Patterson, has always been a man of prayer. And he bequeathed his passion to this church. When I arrived at IPC, prayer permeated our common life. And this is still true. One of the blessed distinctives of our fellowship together is a commitment to pray, whether in worship or mission, whether in meetings or ministries, whether were having food or fun, we come together, we pray.
Yet I wouldn't suggest that we completely arrived. Rather, we're on a journey together toward deeper and more consistent prayerfulness. I can't emphasize enough how important this is, but I will try! In fact, in this sermon I'm going to offer another of my "top ten lists." This time, I want to give you ten reasons why corporate prayer is essential to a healthy church.
Top Ten Reasons Why Corporate Prayer is Essential
Reason #10: When we pray together, we receive Spiritual guidance and discernment
God guides both individuals and the church through the gifts of the Spirit, gifts such as wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, discernment of spirits, teaching, and faith. These gifts operate when Christians gather. But they are often most evident in the context of corporate prayer, including worship.
Many times in my life I've been in leadership meetings when we've been wrestling with a tough challenge. As our human wisdom runs out, we turn to the Lord. While praying together, God begins to speak not only to us, but through us as the Spirit guides us in prayer. By the end of the prayer meeting, we have a clear idea of God's direction, something we lacked when we began to pray.
Why does it happen this way? Well, for one thing, when we pray, we open our hearts to God. We make ourselves available to the Spirit. We are usually more attentive to God's voice than our own. Plus we hear as the Spirit leads our sisters and brothers in prayer.
Reason #9: When we pray together, we experience deeper Christian fellowship.
Two sermons ago we examined how the early believers devoted themselves to "fellowship," which, as I explained, is deep, committed, intimate relationship. It's sharing real life together with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Last week we saw how eating together promotes deeper fellowship. The same could be said for corporate prayer.
I think, for example, of the prayer times I've shared with the elders of this church over the past thirteen years. As some of you know, half of the elders on Session join with the pastors each week for prayer. We gather on Friday mornings, sometimes at 6:00, sometimes at 6:30, for an hour of sharing and prayer. Over the years we've prayed each other through some gut-wrenching challenges: life-threatening cancer, marital discord, children who have wandered far from the Lord, job loss, infertility, death of loved ones, etc. etc. By praying together so regularly we've developed deep affection for each other.
This is a good thing all by itself, of course. But it has also enriched our leaders as elders in this church. There have been times, for example, when the Session has been split about some important issue. Our conversations have been passionate, even heated. But since our leadership is based on prayer-saturated fellowship, our unity in Christ has never been threatened. No matter how much you might disagree with somebody about an issue, you won't break fellowship with that person when she prayed for your deepest concerns just a few days earlier.
Reason #8: When we pray together, we experience more profound unity with the worldwide church.
This is, in some ways, just an extension of Reason #9. When we pray together, we experience deeper fellowship, not only with those in our particular church, but with those in the worldwide church of Jesus Christ. You see this, for example, in the call to prayer of Ephesians 6:18: "Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints." Interestingly enough, the word translated here as "always persevere" is basically the same word we find in Acts 2:42, "they devoted themselves." Ephesians tells us that we are to devote ourselves to supplications - that's prayer of asking - for all the saints. Paul uses the word "saints" as a description of all Christians. So his point is that our prayers are to extend beyond our circle of immediate relationship. We're to pray for all Christians everywhere. Now that's a tall order, probably about a million times harder today than it was in Paul's time because we've got so many more saints in the world.
The point is not that we have to pray for every single Christian personally. That would make our Prayers of the People last a little too long, I'm afraid. But, we should regularly pray for Christians who aren't in this church. We do this when we intercede for our partners in mission, or the persecuted church, or our sisters churches in this city and Presbytery, or Christians in the Sudan, or China, and so on. When we pray in this way, our hearts are bound to other believers, and we rightly sense that we are but one small part in the worldwide body of Christ.
Reason #7: When we pray together, we obey together.
God often calls us to pray together. Consider 1 Thessalonians 5:17, for example: "Pray without ceasing." Now that puts the matter rather bluntly, don't you think? The context for this imperative shows that Paul is thinking here primarily of what we do when gathered together as the community of Christ. To be sure we can pray when alone. But the point of this verse is to call us to consistent prayer when we're together.
So, therefore, when we pray together, we obey together. And this is a crucial discipline of a Christian community. By obeying God together we are acknowledging to each other that we are a people under a sovereign Lord. We're reminding each other that our life together doesn't get structured by our social contract, but by our covenant with God, and in this covenant God sets the terms. Moreover, by obeying God when we are together, we empower one another to obey God when we are apart.
Reason #6: When we pray together, God answers.
Now this is just about the simplest, most basic reason to pray. When we pray, God answers. When we pray, God acts. In the mystery of his sovereignty, God chooses to allow our prayers to matter.
Jesus instructed us to pray, adding an astounding promise: "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7). Now there's reason to pray, don't you think?
Acts provides several stunning illustrations of answered prayer. One comes in the fourth chapter, when the church is beginning to experience persecution at the hands of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. But rather than praying for protection or relief, the believers pray for greater boldness. Watch how Luke describes their prayer and the result:
And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus." When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:29-30).
Now that will get us praying, don't you think?
Reason #5: When we pray together, we experience God's healing.
The last chapter of the letter of James contains practical advice about prayer. Here we read, "Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have then pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick . . . ." (James 5:14-15). Moreover, James continues, "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed" (5:16).
Did you catch that? Through corporate prayer we experience divine healing. The power of God to make us whole comes as we pray for each other.
Reason #4: When we pray together, we find help to overcome some of the common barriers to successful private prayer.
To be sure, Jesus tells us to pray in our "prayer closets" as it were. Private, one-to-one dialogue with the Lord is central to our faith. But most of us go through times when our ability to prayer privately is compromised. Have you ever sat down to pray, but found that your mind instantly filled with all sorts of things you had to do? Before long you left prayer behind to attack your to-do list. Or have you ever tried to pray, but found that you just couldn't sit still? Or maybe you started out praying, but ended up sleeping? Or maybe you're going through a really tough time in life, and you can't even muster the faith to pray? Unless you're pretty unusual, there will be times in your Christian life when you really struggle to pray all by yourself. In these times, corporate prayer will be a godsend, literally.
I try to spend some time alone with the Lord each day. During seasons of my life I've been quite faithful in this discipline. But when I'm tired, over-worked, not sleeping enough, and just plain stressed out - in other words, when I most need quality time with the Lord - these are the times I fail most often to be one-on-one with God. But even during a very bad week I'll still spend hours in corporate prayer. And these hours, far from being empty, often pour life back into my personal devotions.
Furthermore, there have also been times during my pastorate in this church when I've become very discouraged. Now is not one, thank God. But those times have haunted me in the past and I wouldn't be surprised if they haunted me in the future as well. In such seasons of hopelessness, I find it hard to pray, especially when I'm feeling as if God has let me down. In these times the prayers of my sisters and brothers in leadership have felt like soothing balm pouring over my soul. They have had faith when mine has been lacking. Corporate prayer has helped me to keep on praying even when most of my flesh says, "No way."
If you're struggling in your daily devotions, maybe you need to find at least one other person with whom to pray on a regular basis.
Reason #3: When we pray together, we use our most effective weapon in spiritual warfare.
These days it's easy for us to think of ministry as a matter of technique, or training, or expertise, or professionalism, or cleverness, or technological sophistication, or . . . you name it. And though these things can contribute to effective ministry, they are not the core. From a biblical point of view, we are primarily engaged in a spiritual battle, and therefore we need to fight with spiritual weapons.
That's Paul's point in Ephesians 6. He begins be reminding us that "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (v. 12). So, though we might appear to be doing God's work on a human level, the real battle is an invisible one, one that happens in the Spirit.
So then, how do we fight? Paul first explains that we need to take up God's armor together. We need to gird our corporate life with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the Word of God (Eph 6:13-17). Then, fully equipped for battle, we fight. But how? Here's Paul's answer: "Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication" (v. 18). There you go. Here are your marching orders. Church, now that you're prepared for battle, pray! Prayer is one of the most important actions of Christian life and ministry. When we pray, we fight our spiritual battle with spiritual weapons.
Reason #2: When we pray together, we experience the peace of God together.
One of the most beloved passages of Scripture appears in Philippians 4, verses 6-7:
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
What a great promise! Don't you want to experience the peace of God that surpasses all understanding? I know I do!
These verses, though they certainly speak to the individual Christian, were originally written to the gathered church. To paraphrase the sense, we could read the text this way:
Church, don't worry about anything, but whenever you're together and no matter what challenge you face, let your requests be made know to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds together in Christ Jesus.
So, the more we pray together, the more we'll experience God's peace together.
Reason #1: When we pray together, we find our rightful place in the universe, as children of God and siblings together in his family.
Corporate prayer is like coming home when you've been away for a long time. When we pray together, we come before God together, kneeling together before the King of Kings, sharing together in the embrace of our Heavenly Father. We remember who we are, first and foremost. Perhaps, better yet, we remember whose we are, that we are beloved children of God and therefore sisters and brothers in his family.
When we pray together, we lose our rootlessness, our restlessness, our arrogance, our unforgiveness. When we pray together, we find ways to love one another even when it's hard. When we pray together, we can't help but be humble before each other. (As an aside, I have this little fantasy that I think would be the greatest thing for our nation at this time of history. I wish I could lock George W. Bush and John Kerry in a room together, with the instruction that they can't get out until they have prayed together out loud for two hours. I truly believe that this election, and therefore our nation, and therefore our world, would be forever different, for the better, if this were to happen.)
Of course I can't get to Messrs. Kerry and Bush. If I tried, the Secret Service would shoot me, and that would be bad. But I can get to you. Now I'm not going to lock you in a room or anything. But I am going to plead with you to pray together. In diverse places and various modes, pray with your sisters and brothers in this church. Nothing will have a more profound impact on our life together, because when we pray, we're truly at home with the Lord.
Conclusion: A Guide to Prayer
My friends, as most of you know, we're in a crucial season as a church. We're in the midst of a capital campaign called Beyond Ourselves. But I believe that Beyond Ourselves is much, much more than merely an effort to raise money for buildings and missions. It is truly a chance for us all to open our hearts to God afresh, to offer our church and our lives to him, so that we might be the people and the church he has envisioned us to be.
The full impact of Beyond Ourselves, far beyond the financial, will not be felt unless we pray. To help us do this, I've prepared a devotional guide, a guide to prayer. This guide includes twenty-eight suggestions for Bible reading and prayer, one for each of the next twenty-eight days beginning today (Sunday). My hope is that every person in our church family will use this guide. Some of you will do it as individuals. Others will do it with your families, or your LIFE group, or . . . .
I believe that if you use this guide faithfully, it will change your life. Now I know that could sound a bit arrogant, since I wrote it. But my contributions aren't the main part. The power lies in the Bible passages I point you to, and in the prayers you make in response to these texts. How do I know that these texts can make such a difference in your life? Because as I wrote this guide, I did just as I'm asking you to do. I prayed through the twenty-eight passages of Scripture. And as I did, the Lord touched my heart, again and again and again. As I worked on this guide, I often found myself weeping before the Lord, sometimes in confession, sometimes in supplication, sometimes in gratitude, sometimes in praise. I know that if you allow the Spirit of God to impact you through this guide, he will. And this, I believe, will change our church in far more significant ways than can ever be measured on an accountant's bottom line.
So, brothers and sisters, whether we're using the Beyond Ourselves devotional guide, or whether we're gathering in committee meetings, or in small groups, or large groups, or whatever, may we be like the earliest church. May we be committed, not only to the Bible study, not only to sharing real life together, not only to feasting together, but also to praying together. Let's make corporate prayer even more an essential facet of our life together.